Friday, October 29, 2010
On DVD: "The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series"
On May 14, 1998, Seinfeld ended its nine-season run on NBC in a blizzard of hype, with countless magazine covers, talk-show appearances, and entertainment programs mourning the loss of what many considered to be the greatest of all contemporary sitcoms. Sixteen days later, the one program that consistently topped Seinfeld (both in volume of laughs and depth of perspective) finished its six-year run on HBO in much quieter fashion. But that was typical for The Larry Sanders Show, which spent its entire life slyly and agilely skewering the business of show, while simultaneously crafting and interconnecting a cast of brilliantly distinctive comic characters. Its audience throughout its run was a fraction of Seinfeld’s, but it was just as innovative, ingenious, and fall-down funny—if not more so.
It was the second landmark comedy show in as many decades for star Garry Shandling, whose Showtime series It’s Garry Shandling’s Show toppled the conventions of the modern sitcom with its genre-bending, fourth-wall breaking, subversive brilliance. Before and even during that show’s run, Shandling was a frequent guest host for Johnny Carson, working on a two-man rotation as regular Tonight Show sub with Jay Leno. Those appearances reportedly provided the inspiration for The Larry Sanders Show, which would intercut scenes from a fictional late-night chat show hosted by Sanders (Shandling) with unvarnished footage of the backstage workings of the program.
The idea of a faux talk show was not a new one—Norman Lear spun off Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman into the talk show parody Fernwood 2 Night (later America 2 Night) in the late 1970s. But the idea of showcasing the behind-the-scenes machinations as counterpoint to the smoothness of the final product gave the notion a fresh spin, and took it beyond the limitations of merely sending up the late-night conventions. The show was also helped by its flawless sense of timing; it premiered in August of 1992, a mere three months after Jay Leno took over the reins of The Tonight Show following a highly-publicized battle with David Letterman, who later defected to CBS. It seemed exactly the moment when the public would be most interested in just what was happening in late night.
The Larry Sanders Show seemed particularly voyeuristic in choosing to plant its fictional characters and show right in the middle of real Hollywood—names were named, so to speak, with actors playing themselves (often sending up their own images or eagerly portraying themselves as total bastards) and broad swipes taken at suits and pop culture figures. Shandling and his writers took full advantage of the breathless coverage of the “late night wars,” making Larry Sanders one more schmuck struggling to keep his share of the audience, fending off network interference while questioning his own instincts and self-worth.
But the show’s brilliance, ultimately, had less to do with the inside-Hollywood joke-making and tea-leaf-reading than it did with the traditional building blocks of great television comedy: creating memorable characters and plugging them into compelling situations. At the same time, it benefited from the considerably looser content standards of its pay-cable home, injecting a coarse reality into the R-rated dialogue while dealing in darker themes and frequently less-than-sympathetic characterizations. Larry Sanders was certainly not the first TV character to be portrayed as a disconnected, narcissistic, insecure egomaniac, but seldom so unflinchingly, or unforgivingly. And yet, somehow, by presenting the character without kid gloves, he become all the more believable, and therefore sympathetic.
In contrast to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which was occasionally marred by the blandness of its supporting cast, Shandling is here surrounded by one of the finest comic ensembles in TV history. Chief among them is Rip Torn as producer Artie, a tough-as-nails show biz veteran who knows exactly how to finesse and protect his star; gruff, nasty, and uproariously funny, Torn is an utter delight, whether glad-handing celebrities or chewing out his staff with the skill and precision of a true vulgarian. Jeffrey Tambor’s characterization of sidekick Hank Kingsley is dizzyingly (and surprisingly) complex—he crafts an unflinching portrait of the frustrated yes-man, working tirelessly (and often fruitlessly) for the respect, attention, and friendship of his boss, yet disgusted by his own desire for that affection. His jovial demeanor and “hey now” cheerfulness barely cover a heartily simmering cauldron of rage, of fury for being taken for granted, taken for a fool, presumed to be a no-talent hack riding Larry’s coattails. The character of Kingsley is clearly based on Ed McMahon (who pops up as himself in the season two episode “Hank’s Wedding”), but with the kind of acute psychological insight that makes one wonder if McMahon’s psychiatrist was a consultant.
Other series-long regulars include the invaluable Penny Johnson as Larry’s personal assistant Beverly and Wallace Langham as head writer Phil, perhaps the most self-loathing member of the staff (and there’s some stiff competition for that title). Janeane Garafalo appears through most of the run as Paula, the show’s head booker, and is wonderful in her very specific, unflappable way; Mary Lynn Rajskub, as her replacement, is likable but never really makes the role her own. As Darlene, Hank’s assistant for the first half of the run, Linda Doucett is a bit of a cipher, but Scott Thompson (of the Kids in the Hall), as Hank’s second assistant Brian, makes the role his own from his very first episode.
Larry’s wife Jeannie, well-played by Megan Gallagher (of the late, lamentable Slap Maxwell Story) appears throughout the first season, but the show’s writers quickly realized that more hay could be made by making Larry a single guy available for romantic subplots with guest stars; throughout the show, he has memorable flings with Sharon Stone, Roseanne, and (at the height of media discussion of her sexuality) Ellen Degeneres. But the notion of single Larry also allowed Shandling and his fellow writers to dig deeper, and more adroitly, into the character’s complicated psychology; here was a guy who would invite starlets to come over to his house after the taping and watch the show, not just as an angle to get them to his house, but because he legitimately wanted to watching himself on TV, every single night.
As the show neared the end of its run, the creative crew began to take more risks tonally, going for a darker and more complicated tone in those last few episodes, gazing even more unflinchingly at the personality glitches and peccadilloes of its characters. In the closing episode of the fifth season, “Larry’s New Love,” he’s just ended a relationship with an ambitious actress who was clearly using him to make network connections; he lays alone in bed, watching himself interviewing Jeff Foxworthy. Depressed, he switches off the television. But after a moment of solitude, he can’t help but turn it back on; he’s got nothing else going.
The quiet desperation of that scene is only a warm-up for the end of the run. In the penultimate episode, “Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation,” Larry has begun dating actress Ileana Douglas, and after watching her rambling appearance on another show, he gets worried that she’s going to be bad on his. He ends up relentlessly coaching her, working out her stories and timing to his reactions. She’s great on the show, but in his office afterwards, she confronts him with tears in her eyes. “I like you a lot,” she tells him, “and I get the feeling that if I wasn’t a good guest tonight, that you wouldn’t like me anymore.”
The scene that follows is revelatory; this kind of raw, honest emotion on display is seldom seen on television drama, to say nothing of comedy (the episode marked the directorial debut of one of the show’s best writers, a “Judd Apatow”). It speaks, with startling clarity, to the particular neurosis of the culture of celebrity—to the self-indulgence and insecurity of those who make their living being the center of attention. It also makes us realize how cavalierly dismissive we’ve been of the acting gifts of Shandling, who gives the scene a weight and power that no other actor could have put across. “I’m a fucking talk show host, okay?” he says to her, quietly, hopelessly. “I’m all fucked up.”
The show’s final episode, “Flip,” holds more surprises—the return of several wayward characters, the unexpectedly hilarious discussion of whether it’s “gay” to have a male singer do the goodbye song, the brush-off of the perpetually bumped Bruno Kirby, the power of Larry’s closing speech, the unguarded response of the unflappable Artie. Art and life are somehow conflated with even greater skill in the show’s closing installments, as the expiration of the fictional Larry Sanders Show is given a powerful emotional significance by the end of the real one. Watching the brilliant last episode, a dozen years later, one can’t help but feel that the show drew to a close prematurely. If nothing else, it would’ve been amazing to see what they’d have done during this year’s Tonight Show dust-up.
Droll, sophisticated, intelligent, and edgy, The Larry Sanders Show remains one of television’s most entertaining examples of artists ruthlessly biting the hand that feeds them, with scathing satire written from the inside out. But it is also a classically constructed workplace comedy, in the best tradition of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Office (one of the many later series that clearly drew upon it for inspiration), filled with memorable characters, ingenious situations, and endlessly quotable dialogue. There were plenty of great television comedies in the 1990s. This was the best.
"The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series" makes its DVD debut on Tuesday, November 2nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.